Dumbo (1941)

(On DVD, March 2018) As with many classic-era Disney movies, Dumbo is sufficiently well-known as to appear safe and obvious from childhood memories: It’s a movie about a flying elephant, what else is there to say? But a good look at the film from beginning to end does have a few surprises. The biggest one is almost certainly the pre-psychedelic Pink Elephant sequence, a small triumph of animation craft that quickly devolves in a hallucinatory, nightmarish blend of melting blank faces and other indescribable moments. Coming a few minutes after a heartbreaking sequence in which Dumbo’s mother is taken away, it does push the boundaries of what we consider to be appropriate for kids these days. This leads to a sequence with black crows that now seems saddled with racist language, and then to an ending so abrupt that the film seems to be missing another act entirely. This is all interesting, as is the contemporary depiction of an early-forties circus. It may not, however, match with the derivative representation of Dumbo from the Disney Corporation. But that’s all right—as long as you properly vet the film before watching it with your kids.

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